The attack on Mumbai on 26 November 2008 shocked the world. For three days terrorists’ wreaked havoc over multiple venues in India’s commercial capital leaving a trail of blood death and destruction.
Reporters from Hindustan Times tracked the events as they unfolded at Cama Hospital and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and followed the three-day siege at the Taj and trident hotels and at Nariman House. This collection brings together the dispatches, Investigations, profiles and commentaries, published in the paper-including those written by major figures in their fields- during the attack and its aftermath.
Sometimes crises tell us more about the victims than they do about the perpetrators. So it has been with the Bombay attacks of 26 November 2008. We know now that they were carried out by jihadis who were trained in Pakistan, possibly by official agencies. That is politically significant- at least in terms of international relations-but it is hardly a surprise. The same was true of the attack on Parliament a few years ago and of many other terrorist incidents. But the real lessons of the Bombay attacks emerge out of the Indian response. The way we have reacted holds up a mirror to our society and tells us something about our country and how it responds to hostility, aggression and pressure.
The Bombay incidents have caused so many debates within Indian society that is hard to think of a contemporary parallel that has so provoked the Indian intelligentsia. There has been an outpouring of anger against the political establishment, a radicalization- no matter how temporary of the upper middle class a rethinking of the we all want peace attitude that characterized the educated Indian’s response to Pakistan a debate on the role of the media in times of crisis and the apparent sensationalism of television news and a recognition of how vulnerable India and its civilians are to terrorist attacks.
In a sense it is surprising that the incidents in Bombay should have had such for-reaching consequences. India is no stranger to terrorist attacks. Nearly every month, bombs go off in some Indian town or the other. The predictability of the attacks has brutalized most of us. We are shocked for the first fifteen minutes after we hear of the bombings and then it is back to business as usual.
Even the attack on Parliament did not have the same impact on debate and discourse. The government of India, recognizing that the intention of the terrorists had been to take the Cabinet hostage reacted with anger and aggression. Thousand of troops were moved to the Pakistan border, war seemed imminent and for the several months that operation Parakram lasted spent crores of hoping that Pakistan would blink. But neither did Pakistan blink- the confrontation just sort of faded away over time –nor did the Indian intelligentsia respond with the sort of outrage and soul-searching that resulted from the Bombay attacks.
Most nations react to terrorist attacks in a sadly predictable manner. Israel invades the West Bank. The United States threatens to get the perpetrators of the attack ‘dead or alive’. The general wisdom is that the best way to take revenge on the terrorists and to reclaim national honour is to launch an attack using conventional forces and conventional weapons against the States that have either armed or harbored the terrorist. The US response to 9/11 was to launch an attack on Afghanistan in the hope of apprehending Osma bin Laden and effecting regime change that unseated the barbaric Taliban government. The Indian response to the Parliament attack was to threaten Pakistan with war.
The interesting thing about the Bombay attacks is that in their immediate aftermath Indians seemed less interested taking revenge on the terrorists or in going to war then in blaming ourselves our government and our politicians. I can think of few societies where an attack clearly planned and launched by a hostile neighbour- should not result in a desire for war. Instead, India spent its time working out what went wrong and in looking foe those who failed in their duty to protect our cities and our civilians.
Some of his took the foreign press by surprise and perhaps it astonished foreign government as well. If you go over the coverage of the attacks in British and American newspapers you will find that all the articles focused on the imminent India-Pakistan war and then on the almost certain Hindu backlash that would lead to the targeting of local Muslims.
In fact neither of these predictions came to pass. There was hardly any desire to ‘punish’ Pakistan-expect perhaps for a few bimbos who were invited to TV Studios-and few people saw Indian Muslims as being associated with the terrorists or responsible in any way foe the attacks.
What accounts foe the uniqueness of the Indian response?
Everybody will have his or her own explanation. This is mine; Indians are used to terrorism. It no longer shocks us as it once did. Nor are we startled by the recognition that Pakistan might be involved. We have come to accept this as a part of our lives.
We are not like the United States before 9/11 secure in some cocoon believing that nobody can touch us. We know that we are vulnerable. And we know that we have enemies who hate us with a mindless intensity. So we had none of the knee-jerk responses that Westerners have to terrorist incidents. We did not react with anger against the terrorist or seek to make scapegoats of Indian Muslims.
Instead we asked a deeper question: if all of us already know that is a prime terrorists target then why, in God’s name did our government not make more of an effort to protect India’s greatest city?
As it rapidly become clear that there was not good answer to this question the anger grew and the debated raged.
The debate about governmental inaction still continues at some level. We know now that the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s external intelligence agency had intercepted communications India’s external intelligence agency had intercepted communications from known terrorist leaders that hinted at an attack on Bombay. Some of the intercepts were even more specific. They talked about an attack in a hotel at a street where the Taj was the only major hotel. They talked about seaside targets. and, most damning of all, they even had an intercept from terrorists on their boat as they sped towards Bombay.
The intelligence was buried somewhere within the bowels of the Indian intelligence system. It was not analysed in time and the warnings were not passed on. Had India’s intelligence czars acted in time the attacks could have been averted.
In any other country heads would have rolled for such a lapse.
In India on the other hand no accountability has been fixed. Not one intelligence offer was sacked. And there has been no public apology foe this glaring failure. There are problems with the chain of command as well. one of the most infuriating aspects of the way in which the authorities coped with attack was how, foe nearly ten hours did not cope at all.
When the terrorists first attacked the Taj Mahal hotel, the Bombay police were informed. They concluded that the hotel was the centre of a gang war and entered its precincts with their weapons drawn. Shortly afterwards they realized that they had got it badly wrong and withdrew. After that they refused t9o enter the hotel claming that they were ill-equipped to take on terrorist armed with assault rifles and grenades. So, four terrorist who had taken no hostages wandered cheerfully around the Taj while the entire police force of Bombay skulked outside.
Desperate some officials suggested that the armed forces be brought in. The army arrived in strength but its troops did no more than ring the Taj and the Oberoi hotels. They too enter the hotel unless they received a written request from the Maharashtra government.
While all this was going on the fire brigade stood by arguing that it had no mandate to rescue people. The management of the Taj begged the firemen to rescue guest on the sixth floor, including family of Taj’s general manger. The fire brigade shrugged its shoulders. It had to be given permission it said.
But who should give it permission? the police who had abdicated responsibility? The army which was not fully in charge? Or the navy, whose commandos were waiting for their invitation in triplicate?
By the time this was sorted out and the fire brigade moved in the guests on the sixth floor –including the Taj’s manger’s wife and young children were dead.
The story of ineptitude and confusion does not end three. it is still clear whether the navy’s commandos engaged the terrorists at all. They certainly did not manage to wound a single one of them at the Taj. At the Oberoi, it now seems the terrorists commandeered a room and slept the night in a comfortable bed knowing they were in no danger.
n It was only when the National security Guards (NSG) arrived from Delhi the following morning that the operation began in earnest. By then the terrorists were fully in control.
And even then the confusion on the ground continued. Various army generals continued to address the press sometimes providing information that was simply wrong (‘there’s only one terrorist and he’s wounded’ actually there were three firing at the NSG) or, at other times acting as though they were in charge which they were not.
Most shameful of all was the role of the navy. Even while the operation was in progress and NSG officers were fighting for their lives, the navy’s commandos –an allegedly secret force-held a bizarre televised prss conference in which they bragged about non-existent achievements and provided lots of misinformation (the terrorist have ID cards from Mauritius etc.
In the circumstances, can it be a surprise that it took so long to clear the Taj and the Oberoi of a relatively small number of terrorist?
Of course there were individual acts of bravery. An inspector of the Gamdevi police station pounced on Ajmal Kasab, one of the terrorist and would not let go even though six bullets were shot into his body. The inspector died, but his sacrifice ensured that Kasab was captured alive and the plot behind the attacks unraveled.
All this is reason enough to be angry. But public anger was not directed towards the intelligence officials and armed forces chiefs who were responsible for so many of the screw ups. Instead the Bombay middle class went for the politicians.
It was all the fault of India’s corrupts politicians, we were told again and again. They should all resign. They should apologise. They should eat dirt. And so on.
Some of the anger was Justified, As the crisis unfolded the politicians were hardly reassuring and few of them seemed in control. Many were also responsible for the misjudgements that led to the crisis. Why should the NSG be based only in Delhi? Why shouldn’t the force have a designated plane? Why should it take so long police so badly equipped? Why had nobody provided funds for better bullet-proof vests and assault rifles? Why had the police force been systematically weakened through political interference and favouritism?
And yet it is hard to deny that some of the anger was also unjustified. Politicians make for easy target when the middle class is doing the shooting. In Bombay the upper middle class is well off and generally contemptuous of politicians who do not speak good English or do not belong to India’s cities. This class finds it much easier to identify with armed forces and the bureaucracy. The generals speak good English. Top policeman have been to the best collages. India’s spymaster have traveled the world and can parley on equal terms with Bombay’s sophisticates.
Plus there’s the whole issue of universal franchise. Among the uglier moments on the sidelines of the crisis was when assorted Bombay socialites went on Tv to declare how unfair it was that they should be subjects to terrorist attacks when they paid so much in taxes, Surely, that entitled them to something better?
From theta basic grudge there flowed a litany of idiotic suggestions. The people of Bombay should stop paying taxes. India should be handed over to the army. We should recall our politicians Democracy had failed. The police force should be privatized.
It was the anger of disenfranchised affluence. South Bombay may well be India’s Manhattan as some of its socialites claim. But when it comes to democracy, all of the beautiful people in Bombay cannot swing the mandate in a single Assembly seat.
So the anger against politicians was born out of frustration out of a sense of having no control. And the reason why the policemen, officials and offers got off so easy was because they were at the end of the day people like us.
Have we leant anything from the Bombay crisis.? In some ways, I think we have. Perhaps for the first time in the history of independents India, politicians were sacked in response to public anger. The chief minister and deputy chief minister of Maharashtra were driven from office. The home minister of India was forced to put in his papers.
I am not sure that this means that Bombay is much safer now but it does demonstrate that the political system is responsive to public anger. At least some of the criticisms of anti-terrorist response have had some effect. The NSG now has a designated place. The government has announced plans to increase the strength of NSG and to establish centres in major Indian cities. There is some talk of a new intelligence body that will coordinate and analyse all the information that has been gathered.
As significant has been the change in public attitudes to Pakistan. In the week before the Bombay attacks, Indians had been encouraged by the new Pakistan president Asif Zardari’s claim that he desired good relations with India and that he acknowledge our shard heritage. Few Indians take Zardari seriously any longer. Even if he was sincere it is clear that civilian government count for nothing in Pakistan. It is the army and the Jihadis who call shots, and as long as they are in charge India will always be under threat.
But there’s something encouraging about the absence of public anger. The Parliament attack was followed by saber-rattling troop movement. Even then despite the threat of war, Pakistan refused to acknowledge that the attack had been planned on its soil. The time around the government of India forced Pakistan to acknowledge the role of its citizens without moving a single Indian soldier or firing a single bullet. Sometimes a cool head achieves more than the marching many battalions.
There have been other positive effects. The public backlash against the television channels over their crisis has led to a great deal of soul searching within the media. The threat of governmental regulation (since dropped) has caused the channels to evolve their own internal code of conduct.
And yet, I wonder how much things have really changed. The radicalistion of the Bombay middle class has disappeared almost as quickly as it began. Public anger has not led to very many other long-term positive consequences. Nor did it help that debate was conducted at the level of we hate these bloody politicians anyway on most TV channels. Nor am I at all convinced that the structural weaknesses that were exposed by the crisis have been attended to. The intelligence agencies are in as much of a mess as they were last year. R&AW is demoralized and the Intelligence Bureau is politicized and divided.
The NSG is the one force which emerged with credit from the crisis. But nothing has changed with police, and nor can it as long as the present system continues. Since the attacks, the director general of the Maharashtra Police at the time of the terrorist incident has been forced to step down by the courts because a colleague filed a petition alleging favouritism in Promotion. The kind of jostling, accompanied by needles sucking up to politicians, continues to characterize the force. This hardly makes for a crack anti-terrorist outfit.
Nor is it clear that the armed forces have understood how the chain of command works. Chastened by the reprimands delivered by the Defence Ministry over his commandos and their lust for publicity the navel chief ahd become an unguided missile attacking everyday else and accepting no responsibility of an NSG officer.
So yes if terrorists try and attack Bombay again they won’t find it that easy. But my guess is that they won’t find it that difficult either.
Item Code: IDC277 Author: Vir Sanghvi Cover: Paperback Edition: 2009 Publisher: Penguin Book ISBN: 9780143067054 Size: 7.8” X 5.0” Pages: 283 (8 B/W Illustrations) Other Details: weight of the book is 240 gm
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